Former Sen. George Mitchell's report on steroids in baseball may be just the beginning of a new campaign to rid America's pastime of the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs.
Perhaps Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig – who asked Senator Mitchell to take the job – hoped the report would be the end of an era, not the start of one. A study that solely focused on the problems of the past might have allowed MLB officials to declare the problem solved and move on.
But Mitchell's description of a pervasive drug culture in the sport, his listing of star players as drug users, and his push for widespread changes in baseball's testing regime could constitute a tough challenge to the continuation of the sport's status quo.
"The need is for everyone in baseball to work together to devise and implement the strongest [antidrug] strategy," said Mitchell at a press conference Thursday.
Mitchell was tapped to investigate baseball's drug issues in early 2006, after the book "Game of Shadows" was published, alleging that Barry Bonds and other players used performance-enhancing drugs.
Nearly 20 months later, following a probe that cost upwards of $20 million, Mitchell concluded something that to many fans seemed obvious: For more than a decade, the use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances has been widespread in the major leagues.
Club officials routinely discussed the possibility of substance abuse when evaluating players, according to the report. Players who allegedly sought the boost of various performance-enhancing substances range from the brightest of All-Stars, such as former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds and former New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, to those at the leagues' lower rungs, such as former Detroit Tiger and Washington National center fielder Exavier "Nook" Logan.
Everyone shared the blame for the development of the problem, according to the Mitchell report, including the players; the players' union, which resisted testing as an invasion of privacy; the owners, who prior to 2002 were solely focused on the economics of the sport; trainers and others who supplied the drugs.
The sport was slow to see the crisis coming, said Mitchell. He made a number of recommendations that he said would help bring baseball's antidrug regime up to world standards, if implemented.
Among Mitchell's proposed changes: aggressive investigation of nontesting evidence of drug possession or use; more cooperation with law enforcement authorities; greatly improved off-season random testing; and the outsourcing of test administration to an independent agency.
The players' union must approve a number of the changes, noted Mitchell. But "I believe that the principal beneficiaries of these reforms will be the majority of major league players who play clean and follow the rules," Mitchell concluded in his report. "These players have been harmed by having to play against violators who gained an unfair advantage.... The clean major league players deserve far better than they have had to endure."
Mitchell's recommendations are in line with the opinion of many national and international testing officials and experts, who deem baseball's current test regimen to be outdated and easy to fool.
"The program is almost as if it were designed not to catch the folks that are doing this," says Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal.
One of Mr. Pound's principal objections is that baseball's off-season drug tests are so few and far between that for all practical purposes the winter is free play for drug cheats.
Yet the physical improvement wrought by steroids can persist for up to four or five years, after the detectable residue of the drug itself has left the system, he says. For that reason, any player who resorted to them during the season, when testing is more random and widespread, is "an idiot," says Pound.
"If you get caught during the season, you've actually failed two tests – the dope test and an IQ test," he says.
Indeed, Mitchell underscored the need for adequate year-round, unannounced testing. But he also emphasized the importance of investigations based on evidence other than positive tests – phone records, receipts, and testimony from witnesses, for example.
Mitchell called for baseball's antidoping efforts to be administered by "a truly independent person who holds exclusive authority."
Little progress can be made so long as a sport is both promoting and policing itself, says Travis Tygart, head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, which tests US athletes who compete in the Olympics and other international venues. "Our experience has been – and this is a lesson the Olympics learned almost 10 years ago – you can't do both."
In some ways, it is understandable that athletes are tempted to cheat, given the money involved. A mediocre major league starting pitcher is worth upwards of $8 million a year. By contrast, a starter at AAA, the top level of the minor leagues, might earn $80,000.
And a player who falls out of baseball altogether? What's the minimum wage?
"Baseball should recognize that, at least in the past, people have been taking any advantage they could," says Geoffrey Rapp, a sports-law expert at the University of Toledo College of Law.
Professional cycling is currently in chaos, Professor Rapp points out, because of revelations of drug use. Corporations are dropping team sponsorships, television coverage is down, and dozens of riders have been slapped with fines and suspensions.
Cycling now has tough testing. Yet riders keep getting caught. The cash difference between finishing first and finishing third may be just too great.
"One of the big lessons of cycling is that cheating is far more pervasive than you want to acknowledge," says Rapp.
Meanwhile, as to punishing past offenders, baseball might do well to simply let bygones go by, said Mitchell. He urged that the major leagues forgo discipline in all but the most egregious cases.
"There was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on," said Mitchell.
Adds Mr. Tygart: "On some level, while none of these players should be able to look their young fans in the eyes again, it's the establishment that has allowed this to occur that must be changed."